Signs of Making Meaning

Dec 13 2011

Making meaning

We are a peculiar species. For example, many of us continue to risk our long term survival for the pleasure of puffing on a stick of nicotine, while others make it very difficult to walk by wearing uncomfortable high heel footwear.

Why do we do this? What are the unconscious motivations behind these and many other strange behaviours? And are the meanings of these strange behaviours linked to the reason that we also create myths, art, rituals, languages and all the other artefacts we produce? Semiotics is an approach to uncovering the hidden motivators of these behaviours and other manifestations of our meaning making species, and although it is much less known than philosophy or psychology, it is a great tool to help researchers unravel the meanings of the many symbols we create to share our meanings with others in our quest to understand the meaning of life. One definition of semiotics is the ‘science of produced meaning’.

Signs of life

Oscar Wilde said, “a cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” While many of us may disagree (for the record, I don’t smoke), many smokers may relate to these sentiments, and over 500 years tobacco has been central to many social interactions and been responsible for starting many conversations too. Although once highly desirable, there was always a more naughty side to cigarettes and smoking, and these more negative meanings now dominate in many countries and contexts, but the stick of nicotine continues to carry Oscar Wilde’s meanings too.

Signs and symbols rule the world” (Confucius), and Charles Pierce (one of the co-founders of the discipline) thought that they might even be everything that’s relevant in the world. It’s certainly true that all signs and symbols are surface reflections of a deeper system of meaning which inform human culture making it what it is. Whether semiotics is a science or art (and like most disciplines it’s probably a mixture of both), the basic principles and structured approaches of semiotics provide a ‘scientific’ way of decoding the meanings in culture in a way which can be massively beneficial in understanding human behaviour. The word was first used in a very scientific context, by Hippocrates explaining the basis of medical diagnosis in interpreting the signs and symbols of disease symptoms.

Three key principles underly the use of these tools. Firstly, all meaning bearing behaviours and expression have a history which can be unravelled. Secondly, these systems of signs influence our behaviour and our acceptance of others’ behaviour (for example, the meanings and acceptance of smoking and high heels in different cultures for men or women). Thirdly, our exposure to such cultural norms is key to the development of our own ‘worldview’, and thus shapes everything we do.

The meaning of meaning

Charles Baudelaire wrote, “The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform.”

Culture is a network of interconnected signs and codes that inform all our daily interactions and behaviours and the values that we give to objects, situations and others. So what does meaning mean? In a classic text from 1923, at least 16 common meanings were found for the English word ‘meaning’, including purpose, indication and many others. Many meanings in culture are unspoken, and our practical knowledge of the world is highly culturally specific (just think of what is considered ‘edible’or ‘not’ as food across different cultures around the world).

These meanings are built on the categories that culture uses to classify the world and the objects in the world around us, and any interpretation we make of anything in the world, starts with a selection of the relevant categories that are required to make sense of the purpose and the context of that thing. These meanings are separate from the symbol itself. For example, red can ‘mean’ the colour (ie not blue), an emotional state (“I’m red with embarrassment”), a financial predicament (“I’m in the red”) or a political ideology (“he’s a red communist”). Such words (and symbols) can have multiple levels of meaning, something we all understand intuitively, even if it can seem difficult to explain.

Colours are particularly powerful as carriers of meaning, and red is linked with life, magic, warmth, love, fertility, passion, danger and evil (for example, in ancient Egypt). All these meanings date back to older beliefs, symbols and meanings associated with the practice and rituals of life, and thus an understanding of the history of a symbol is critically important to understanding its present day meaning.

What meaning is (not)

Whenever we categorise objects we not only define what they ‘are’ but also what they ‘are not’ and Ferdinand de Saussure (the other founder of semiotics) saw opposition as the psychological basis of how we understand and make meanings. This is typically done through creating binary pairs (or squares according to Greimas), such as rich - not rich - poor - not poor. We all respond directly and universally to such opposites and they are apparent in all philosophical, religious and narrative systems in human culture:

  • Masculine vs Feminine
  • Light vs Dark
  • Good vs Evil
  • Self vs Other
  • Sacred vs Profane
  • Body vs Mind
  • Heaven vs Hell
  • Beginning vs End
  • Love vs Hate
  • Pleasure vs Pain

These codes of oppositions underpin our culture, knowledge and languages, shaping the way we tell stories and develop theories of the world. They imply that meaning is never absolute, and only relative to something else.

The semiotics of society

We all communicate both verbally (language is a system of signs) and non-verbally (body language is also a system of signs), with non-verbal communication dominating in most situations (at least those which are face-to-face, by some accounts by a factor of 20 to 1). Paul Ekman has spent decades studying the meaning of facial expressions and body language (read more here), and classified seven core emotions and 46 basic facial movements (micro-expressions) which comprise his facial action coding system (as used by the FBI for airport screening and in the TV series Lie to Me). Our eyes are a key part of this body language too, and have huge symbolic meaning (think of the movies 2001: A Space Odyssey and Bladerunner or Shakespeare’s King Lear to see the profound and multi-layered meanings attached to our eyes and sight).

More mundanely, we all use our hairstyles (as well as clothing and hats) to convey meaning to others, as well as the objects we buy and the way we arrange these objects around us in our homes (read more here).

The language of meaning

“Language is the mother of thought, not its handmaiden.”  - Karl Krauss

Much of our everyday conversation seems trivial, although laden with obvious and hidden meanings, often based on the way we play roles to meet out own self-image and the demands of the situation (read Erving Goffman for more on this). Robin Dunbar even argues that language evolved as a more sophisticated version of primate grooming to meet the demands of larger social groups.

Storytelling is an intrinsically human activity (read more here), and all human cultures are rich in myths and legends which seek to explain their roots and heritage as well as the deeper meanings of existence. More than anything else, language sets us apart from all other species in this world, and arguably shapes the way we think too.The way we use colour words to create meanings has a rich and interesting history, and the six basic colour categories (purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, red) have counterparts in other languages and interestingly this range of descriptors have a predictable historical development, consistent across all cultures, strongly correlated with other cultural developments and especially the ability to artificially create the colours.

Metaphor and meaning

Metaphor is key to understanding the meaning we make from all the sensory information which floods through our brains every second. Are kisses really sweet? This metaphor certainly makes the emotion of love more concrete, relevant and meaningful to almost everyone, allowing us to create an abstract idea from very concrete emotions and perceptions. The term metaphor goes back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who thought of it as much more than poetry, helping us to link ideas and engage the imagination in helping us to understand sometimes difficult concepts and ideas.

Metaphors were only really fully understood more than 1,500 years after Aristotle by Giambattista Vico in eighteenth century Italy, who saw metaphors as strategies through which we can ‘get out heads around’ abstract ideas, giving credit to the powers of our imagination to use metaphor as a tool for mentally manipulating ideas which eventually lead to language (the use of words) and art (the use of images) to help us understand, share and make concrete even the  most ‘conceptual’ of our thinking. Through this system we make our ‘culture’, building imaginative systems from common ‘sense’.

The story of semiotics

“Myth is an attempt to narrate a whole human experience, of which the purpose is too deep, going too deep in the blood and soul, for mental explanation or description.”  - D.H. Lawrence

The way we tell our life stories to others, reflects the way we make sense of our place in the world, weaving the episodes of our life into a coherent plot, with characters, setting, structure, purpose and above all meaning (or no meaning when we struggle to find our place in the world). This story we create helps us to create a coherent, continuous and meaningful basis for the way we live our lives and behave with others, creating order from the chaos of existence. Although the sense of stories is often that of replacing ‘facts’ with fictions, stories nearly always reveal far more about us than any ‘facts’ can ever do. As David Lodge once said, “creating narratives is one of the fundamental sense-making operations of the mind, and would appear to be both peculiar to and universal throughout humanity.”

Characters in our myths stand for specific emotions, qualities, ideas and needs, in the same way that each of the Greek gods stood for rain, thunder, sea, knowledge, death or other ideas. My favourite myths are those of the ‘cultural hero’ and especially Prometheus who stole fire from the Gods (in order to help mankind), in the same way that the mythology of West Africa talks about the blacksmith who steals seeds from the Gods’ granary, and the Indonesian myth which talks about Hainuwele who shares the goodness of her body for the good of mankind. Prometheus is a classic example of the ‘trickster’ archetype which is common in mythology (the Artful Dodger in Dickens, Puck in Shakespeare) and talked about by Jung. Who is Superman, but a re-incarnation of Prometheus? The symbolism of Superman, and the meanings he brings to the books and movies which bear his name, come ultimately from the Greek myths.

Signs of meaning

To understand ourselves, we must interpret our culture and the meanings that it reveals about who we are, where we come from and how we understand, interpret and react to the world around us.  If we can interpret these signs, we can truly understand ourselves, without asking anyone a single question.


Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (1995)

Mythologies by Roland Barthes (1972)

The Pursuit of Signs by Jonathan Culler (1981)

Of Cigarettes, High Heels and Other Interesting Things by Marcel Danesi (1999)

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